ACLU urges Roanoke County to forgo prayer before legislative meetings

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia yesterday sent a letter to members of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors reminding them that if prayers are used to open legislative meetings they must not favor one religious sect over any other. The letter was sent in advance of tonight’s meeting at which the Board is expected to consider a resolution establishing an invocation policy.

“Although the Supreme Court has ruled that legislative bodies may open their meetings with prayers that do not refer to particular religious beliefs, government officials often find it difficult to implement policies that allow some kinds of prayers and not others,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “For that reason we urged the Board of Supervisors to consider not having any prayer at all, or a moment of silence. A moment of silence can still solemnize the meeting by providing a brief period of reflection, and lets everyone who is present, both believers and non-believers, use the moment as they choose.”

“While signs suggest the Board is likely to meet the minimum legal standard by adopting a nonsectarian policy that is inclusive of members of the community and does not favor one religion over others, we wanted to remind Board members of the legal precedents,” added Glenberg.

The ACLU’s letter cites extensive federal case law requiring that invocations at legislative meetings be nonsectarian. Among other cases, Glenberg noted that a federal court recently ordered members of the Board of Supervisors of Pittsylvania County to cease its practice of offering sectarian prayers at meetings.

Following last month’s Board of Supervisors meeting, which included a lengthy debate on the issue, the Board instructed the County’s attorney to draft a nonsectarian prayer policy.

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